Behind Netanyahu's Justice Minister Flip-flop: Damage Control, and a More Important Target

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Netanyahu speaking to the press, last week.
Netanyahu speaking to the press, last week.Credit: Yonatan Zindel / Flash 90
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not notify Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz on his intention to cave and appoint the latter as interim justice minister. Gantz himself reacted with disdain to the prime minister's flip-flop: "Netanyahu understood he does not have the authority appoint the justice minister," said a person close to Gantz. “It's not in his hands. It's Kahol Lavan's decision. Netanyahu caved and government will approve Gantz's decision to be appointed to the post.”

Foiling Gantz's appointment was meant to be a calculated step by Netanyahu, as part of ongoing effort to weaken the law enforcement bodies. His illegal decision, his dismissal of the attorney general's directives and his hiring of an external attorney to represent his case before the Supreme Court were all a part of a message conveyed to his voters: A message that spoke volumes about how a prime minister in the midst of a corruption trial views law enforcement.

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But the move backfired. Besides picking a fight with the courts, Netanyahu realized his moves bolstered the chances of the so-called "change bloc" in forming a government. He realized he went one step too far, political sources said. 

"Netanyahu understood that he sparked two fires in places where he needs quiet right now," said a source that attended the government meeting on Tuesday. According to the source, Netanyahu "both burned bridges with Gideon Sa'ar and Benny Gantz, who he needs for coalition talks, and could have provoked the courts to declare him unfit for office."

Netanyahu’s  message against the legal system resonated well in the Knesset and in the public. This U-turn marks his new and important goal: Preparing for new elections. Netanyahu is working to foil a government made up of his rivals, while also trying to push for direct elections for prime minister –which he is much more likely to win.  

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided on Wednesday to appoint Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz as justice minister for the tenure of the interim government, hours before the Supreme Court was set to convene on the matter.

Netanyahu announced that the vote on the appointment will be brought before the cabinet for approval on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the cabinet voted on the appointment of Likud's Ofir Akunis as justice minister in a proposal pushed by Netanyahu.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit declared the vote invalid and said that it violated both the coalition agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu and the Basic Law on Government.

Israel's Supreme Court was scheduled to convene Wednesday afternoon to continue discussion regarding Israel's unfilled justice minister post, after freezing Akunis’ appointment to the role, due to the "illegal" nature of the vote.

While the cabinet did vote to appoint Akunis, they did so in a surprise vote over the objections of Gantz, and all the Kahol Lavan ministers. 

In Tuesday's ruling, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote, "the minister Ofir Akunis cannot serve in the role of justice minister until the court rules otherwise." The court agreed to meet again on Wednesday in order to address the wider issue of the unfilled post.

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